Books: And the winner is ... an Irish bagel seller in Edinburgh

A stand-up comic who sees the funny and touching side of service provision; and a guide for those who'd like to share a builder with Madonna. Henry Stewart reports.

Inconvenience Stores

Mark Bradley

Ardra Press £9.95

Home UK

Helen Kirwan-Taylor

Conran Octopus £16.99

MT price £14.99

Mark Bradley's story of one year of customer service, as he and his family go about their day-to-day activities, is the kind of book many of us would love to write, getting a chance to report on all those companies that have treated us so badly. No prizes for guessing that the year described in Inconvenience Stores was 'not a continuous procession of ecstatic moments of joy'.

Bradley is well placed to write this, being the organiser of the Customer Service Network. As an occasional stand-up comedian, he writes an entertaining and humorous book. Expect a few diversions, such as several pages on whether the reason customer service is (allegedly) better in the US than in the UK is because their customers are armed. This is certainly not a dry, heavy tome.

The service wasn't all bad, though. We hear about the Pret employee who offers the latte 'on us' because 'I saw how long you had to wait in the queue'. There is the Asian hotel chain where staff must get management permission to say no to a customer. Epson delivers a 'sorry book' of freebie material to compensate when the printer doesn't work and has to be replaced. And we read about Singapore Airlines, whose main performance target used to be for staff to get more written compliments than complaints.

The star service award goes to Geroid, an Irish bagel seller in an Edinburgh shopping centre. 'I love customers,' he enthuses as Bradley approaches.

'This is the best job I've ever had ... and if you make me smile, I won't charge you.' His banter gets the queue chatting and leaves the author feeling great. He ends up leaving a tip as large as the cost of the bagel.

Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, recently argued that the way to improve service in the public sector was to increase choice, as it is competition that has made Tesco great. Tesco is clearly an exception (and gives a donation to charity for every call to the customer service line), but Leahy's argument raises the question why, despite competitive pressures, service is so often so bad.

Bradley comments that the media profile of customer service in the UK is 'lower than a dachshund's genitals'. I was interested recently to read Piers Morgan say that if he were still editor of the Mirror, he would run a sustained campaign against call centres and the pain of dealing with them (having experienced them for the first time since he left the job).

I love that idea. Imagine poor service no longer relegated to the money section, but plastered across our tabloids. Come on, chief executives - give your own call centre a ring and experience what it's like to be a customer.

When Happy Computers won the Service Excellence award in 2003 for the best customer service in the UK, I asked the judges what set us apart.

They explained that we clearly knew what our customers wanted. 'Actually, most companies understand that,' they added. 'But they then put in place a set of rules and procedures that prevent their staff delivering what their customers want. You don't.'

Bradley reaches similar conclusions. Companies need to focus on making their people feel good, encourage them to get continuous feedback (and share the results of surveys they carry out with the front-line staff), and give them the freedom and trust to do what makes sense for the customer.

I don't know if it matches Geroid, but in my opinion the best customer service in the UK comes from eBay - even though it has a massive range of unconnected sellers. Whoever you buy from, you get attentive service and quick delivery. The secret is in the feedback rating, by which sellers live or die.

There are people who have sold more than 10,000 items on eBay and got positive ratings in 99.9% of them. Imagine the effect on companies if every customer rating were there for all to see.

Helen Kirwan-Taylor's book, Home UK, is based on a similar principle. Find the best companies in home services (from architects and builders to cleaners and gardeners) by starting with the recommendations of clients.

Home UK is certainly a thorough and well-researched book, with every entry based on personal experience and recommendations. It seems to be restricted to fairly well-off clients, though. If you have a quarter of a million to spend on your house and want to know which builders or cleaners Victoria Beckham or Madonna would recommend, then this could be the book for you.

Those of us with lesser budgets will have to stick to Yellow Pages or asking friends. Personally, I'd recommend John, who has just done a grand job on our basement. Give him a ring on 020 8677 8600.

- Henry Stewart is chief executive of Happy ( Happy Computers was the overall winner of the MT/Unisys Service Excellence award in 2003.

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